He might have started out with teenage dreams of being the next Paul McCartney, but award-winning engineer Dave Darlington has forged his own star-studded path across three decades and most of the music genres out there; working with some of the biggest idols in the industry and bagging not just one but two Grammys (and a few other nominations besides). He attributes his success to several factors: from the knack of saying yes to any opportunity, to efficiency and flexibility, and open-minded curiosity about the latest developments in technology. We talk to the inspirational maestro about the opportunities he’s seized, and the gear that has helped him do it - from the Steinberg Pro24 to the latest Sound Radix plug-ins.
Opportunity knocks: From Symphony to Sessions
Coming of age in 1960s Miami in a heady mix of “surfing and The Beatles”, Darlington always felt an affinity to music and dabbled in teenage rock bands, but it was during college (where he had taken the ‘sensible’ route of an architecture major), that musical doors really opened for him: “I wanted to borrow an upright bass from the music department, ‘cos I wanted to learn how to play jazz. They said ‘yeah, you can take the bass home but you have to show up for orchestra rehearsal, because we always need bodies in the bass section.” A change in major followed, seeing Darlington graduate with a music degree and embark on an orchestral with the Jacksonville Symphony and Gold Coast (Tampa) Symphony. But it wasn’t long before the talented bassist’s attentions changed direction again - Darlington remembers his lightbulb moment: “I was in Florida playing in the Tampa Symphony and I looked over at the older violin players and they were all 50 years old and miserable… and I thought ‘I can’t do that! That can’t be me in 30 years!’ So I threw everything into my van and drove to New York! I answered a couple of ads for bassists and within a week I was playing for money!”
Fast-forward ten years and Darlington was well-established as a session player, but always with an eye on his next big move: “Every time I would leave the studio, I would poke my head into the control room thinking ‘wow, that just looks so amazing in there!’ I was running my PA system on my own gigs so I had a little routing knowledge and frequency knowledge and how the boards work, and little by little I started programming for people. I bought a Fostex 8 track in maybe ‘81 or ‘82 and made some little demos for people. One group I made a demo for named Character were signed by Motown; they were assigned a producer and made a record. They hated the record but loved the demo, so they said ‘next time we’re taking you with us’ - which they did. And one thing led to another!”
‘Programming is a Voodoo Art’
Darlington’s discography has over 1000 album credits, and reads like a who’s who of music of the music scene over the last 30 years – from Chaka Khan to Charlie Parker, Sting to Roger Sanchez, Bob Sinclair to Phyllis Hyman - not to mention the Sonic the Hedgehog video game theme, Free Willy movie soundtrack, or the ground-breaking HBO series Oz.
When pressed as to just how he’s achieved such an astounding track record, he attributes it modestly to a mixture of musical knowledge, and practical resources: “I put it down to a couple of things. Firstly, programming is sort of a voodoo art to a lot of people, so if you can do it well and you can do it musically you’re going to be in demand. Secondly, having a venue. The Counterpoint studio [where Darlington worked as an in-house engineer] ended up being absorbed into Quad [Quadrasonic Studios], and the owner of Quad said if you want to have a little programming room here in this broom closet then you can bring the mixes that you create into the SSL rooms; you’ll feed my studio and you’ll feed your career. So right away in the middle ‘80s I was able to establish a venue called Bass Hit, which started at Quad then we moved to 23rd Street. So I always had a place, I was always a good programmer, and I was always musical because of my background. And I think those three combinations are what worked.”
Along with a can-do attitude and a big dose of efficiency and urgency – creating a sense of getting the job done. “I don’t saunter in and say ‘yeah, yeah give me a minute’; I dash in and want to try everything right now! You gotta give the band that sense that you’re as excited about their project as they are. Be part of the band. I might not be playing but I’m still making the music with them. On top of which, truthfully speaking, New York is a very expensive place to live – the only way I found to survive was to be ‘can do!’”
It must also have helped that Darlington was happily at home whatever the genre. “I kinda prided myself on that. I started doing a ton of dance music in the late 80s/early 90s and I started thinking to myself I really don’t want to be just ‘that dance guy that can make the kick drum pound in the clubs’ - although I do enjoy that music and I’m proud of those records.” After a recommendation to The Digable Planets, he “bounced over from the house music side of things to the cool jazzy hip-hop stuff” and a whole new genre opened up to him. “But I love all kinds of music really. Every day people are bringing me their work - their heart - to me and saying ‘this is my child, please treat it nicely and bring it up into the best thing it can be!’ It’s a great position to be in.”
A Savvy Relationship With Gear
Alongside his prodigious talent, musical background, multi-genre approach and can-do attitude, it’s inescapable that gear itself has played a part on Darlington’s journey, from his early days in the Bass Hit “broom closet” to his latest go-to plug-ins. “Back in the ‘80s I started with the Steinberg Pro24 – the day I bought it I put the dongle in upside down and immediately smelled fire! I had to wait until Sunday to return it and pretend I didn’t know what was wrong with it, to get a new dongle!”
His first sequencer was the Performer, Darlington recalls, while clients would come in with the MC500. He had a Trident B-board in his first room, and a Studer 24-track. “Then I bought the SSL for the first Bass Hit, it was 32 with no recall but it had static fader automation rather than moving faders, then I graduated to the G-Plus and finally had an adult bit of gear! We had two Sony 24 tracks - 48 tracks with a Lynx[??] – at that time that was pretty high tech. We weren’t really a tracking room, we could do vocals and horns, but it was a mix spot. I had a reel 808, a reel 909, and we had a really good MIDI for the DJ guys. Then I got a job writing for television, for the show Oz, and I needed a writing space I could afford so I took a room where I am now, on 29th, and was writing the TV show on DA88s, Performer with MIDI and samplers then going to DA88s - that’s how we delivered stems.”
As times began to change on the digital front, Darlington was savvy enough to see the writing on the wall and move with the times. “Pro Tools came out and Creator and E-Magic –
suddenly you could record audio into your sequencers and stuff. I toyed with bringing the SSL over to the smaller space but thank goodness I didn’t; we sold everything, and I’ve been in this smaller space ever since. We have this nice size over-dub booth that’s not a closet so the vocalist can really let go and not feel claustrophobic, and I can do horns and string quartets and everything. Everything has been in the box for me since 2001 or 2002”.
As befits his can-do approach, Darlington’s first experience of using a plug-in came about when an artist asked him to mix in Pro Tools. “I’d never used Pro Tools but I said ‘of course I can’. They had the Q10, which I still use to this day. I learned as I went along, learned the automation in the DAW and it was astounding! You could actually see what you were doing – see the rides coming before you knew you had to do it, see the vocal was going to get loud and know you had to bring it down - it was game-changing.”
Sound Radix: ‘Another Level of Insight’
It then wasn’t long before the engineering maestro came across Sound Radix. “When everything went to 64-bit everybody was saying ‘listen, if you need your old things you can get them to work with this thing called 32 Lives’; I quickly bought that, and rocked all my VSTs and DPMs - everything that could be converted by 32 Lives I converted – I tend to be fond of my old stuff! So that was my introduction.”
He then fell in love with the Muteomatic, finding it a revelation: “Especially if you’re tracking a live band, you want to have a communication mic, you want to hear what the drummer is saying, but if he starts playing drums when it’s on it’ll kill everyone! So I use Muteomatic all the time; I have a template set up for my vocal recording which has a plate, an input track and a talkback track with Muteomatic.”
Closely followed by the wizardry of Auto-Align, to which he now admits he is completely addicted: “A friend of mine brought a rock record over and he said ‘I love the mix but don’t you use Auto-Align?’ I’m like ‘what’s Auto-Align?’ and he said ‘Ohh, it’s going to change your life’. So that’s when I got in touch with Sound Radix and they gave me a trial and man I gotta tell you, especially for rock, those drums just sat up straight in the chair; it’s unbelievable. They have this great feature that once they’re aligned then you can stagger, like you can take your room mics and move them one series of waves back, which gives you that kind of pre-delay thing which is awesome. So I’m completely addicted to that, like before I even listen to the drums I put it on. I will admit I don’t always use it, but I would say 80% of the time I find it makes a huge difference. The only time it doesn’t is if you’re doing softer jazzy bossa nova you kinda want a little bit of blur in your drums, a little smearing. But in general I think it’s a brilliant idea, and I love using the artificial intelligence instead of single delay on each track to figure out what to do.”
SurferEQ is a godsend especially when it comes to things like jazz tracks: “It’s a really brilliant idea. EQs are now getting all dynamic, there’s a bunch of dynamic EQs out on the market. But now we have an EQ which tracks the frequency so when you have an instrument like a saxophone where frequencies are not even throughout, I watch the wave of the saxophone and try to mark out where that fundamental is and just give a little boost there, and then I watch it chase it. Especially the soprano sax; it’s not even throughout but now you can make it so. Or you can dip out a harsh part of a voice but not always the same frequency; you can find out where that girl is belting and watch it chase the frequency. It’s pretty amazing.”
As for Drum Leveler, Darlington appreciates its intuitive interface: “It’s really pretty easy to use; so easy to understand. And that’s great on pop and rock, where you have a live person. I do a lot of gospel stuff and it’s all live, and of course the drummers are just playing ‘with the spirit’ so they don’t always hit the snare the way you need it to be for a pop sound – they want to have the American gospel sound. So I make a little sub-group for all the up-and-down snare mics and in-and-out kick drum mics and put Drum Leveler on it and suddenly I’ve got a pop track, it’s great! I haven’t tried it on any instruments other than drums, but I can imagine it’s awesome. There’s a lot of stuff in the manuals - I think it’s POWAIR where they go through all the pre-sets and tell you what they were thinking when they made it – that’s like another level of insight!”
“POWAIR is a brilliant idea: before that on an analogue situation you would have two faders and switch off for a whole different chain, then in digital you could automate the plug in and change the threshold and turn off this compressor and turn on that one; now you have something with AI that reads the game structure and does it for you. If you think about it, it sounds amazing stuff but maybe we’re in early days of this - it’s probably going to go way beyond what we’ve got now.”
Always Serve the Music
Such enthusiasm for innovation and fascination with tech fits with Darlington’s positive attitude and suggests a real curiosity for new ideas dating back to his early career. “I think it’s in my nature. Back when I was an electric bass player somebody said ‘you should play with a pre-amp and a power amp, it’s much cleaner’, so I bought a phase linear; I’ve always been curious about what’s going on. I remember when I first started working in the studios the thing that linked the two tape machines was the BTX Shadow which barely operated 10% of the time but it was amazing technology. I always find it fascinating. And I’ve always loved synths – when I was a kid in college we had a Minimoog on this one project and we stayed up all night just twiddling the knobs, it was unbelievable.”
Looking back over his career and reflecting on the advice he would proffer his younger self, Darlington muses: “I would tell myself not to be quite so nervous about the future. Don’t spend so much time lying awake at night worrying; have a little faith in your own abilities to determine the right path and to adapt. I started out wanting to be a bass player like Paul McCartney and now I’m an engineer. And I’m completely happy with that turn of events.”
A few decades on and rather more confident in his abilities, just how does this prolific engineer find the time still to indulge his curiosity and learn new technologies? “I learn while I’m working” is the simple answer. But never at the expense of his art. “I try not to let it get in the way of the work – I never want to be dealing with the technology to the detriment of the music. That goes for DAWs or monitoring systems or anything. You want to serve the music.”
You certainly get the impression that this is one curious cat who will be serving the music for many decades to come.